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Bashing Japan: People Love It!

Let it slip that you hate Sofia Coppola's film 'Lost in Translation' and readers demand an explanation. Here it is.

Steve Burgess 13 Jan 2004TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

He writes the Please Advise! column and other effluvia as required. He is a former CBC host and author of the 2011 book Who Killed Mom? from Greystone Books. He has won two National Magazine Awards and three Western Magazine Awards.

Raised on the Canadian Prairies, he has lived in Vancouver since 1988. Find him on Twitter @steveburgess1.

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The Voice of the Village has spoken. According to the critics of that beloved New York publication The Village Voice, "Lost in Translation" was the best movie of 2003. Plenty more plaudits where those came from. Roger Ebert, syndicated in the pages of the Vancouver Province, made it his favorite for the Best Picture Oscar, and most critics' year-end lists placed writer/director Sofia Coppola's film in the top three. In so doing they have guaranteed that Lost in Translation will win at least one not-so-coveted award: Most Over-Rated Film of the Year, as voted by me. It was a tight race.

When I said as much in a recent column, Tyee readers (well, several at least) howled their demands (asked nicely, actually) that I explain myself. Here goes.

I confess--my deep antipathy for this film is at least partly fueled by all the critical praise it has enjoyed. I probably wouldn't hate it so much if it had been ignored. But it wasn't, and so "Lost in Translation" takes its place alongside those critical darlings of yesteryear (e.g. Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire") that leave me feeling like the last remaining human in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The others have all been taken--I must live in the sewers and emerge only at night…

Gotta like Bill Murray

Defenders of "Lost in Translation" point to the sweet, offbeat love story at its heart--Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, jet-lagged and alone in Tokyo, forming a bond in a morass of insomnia and cultural disorientation. They're certainly right about one of the film's strengths, and it's Bill Murray. How can you fail to enjoy a couple of hours spent with Bill? He's likeable even when he's being an asshole, a point that this film makes several times.

But Sofia Coppola gets no credit for that. She didn't invent that wonderful Murray persona. It's not like she wrote his funny quips. If she had, there would be evidence of that cleverness somewhere else in the movie. There isn't. A quiz for you, LIT fans: Aside from Murray's over-the-hill actor Bob Harris, can you name another interesting, well-developed character in the film?

Is it Charlotte? Johansson's character is a 25-year-old American philosophy major who may well be a stand-in for Coppola herself. We know she's a philosophy major because she tells us so--it's certainly not evident from her conversation. Typical of Coppola's attempts at character development is the scene where Charlotte and her photographer husband bump into Kelly (Anna Faris), a vapid American starlet. Afterward Charlotte bitches that Kelly is so shallow, she doesn't even know that author Evelyn Waugh is a man. Gee, good one. But if Kelly the Actress is so shallow, how does she know Evelyn Waugh ever walked the Earth at all? It's just a laboured set-up for a leftover campus cheap shot which, when transferred to a Hollywood starlet, makes no sense.

Making Japanese creepy

 

There's certainly nothing wrong with Johansson's performance in the film. But aside from being young and touchingly vulnerable, Charlotte doesn't offer much of interest. Japan showcases her finest qualities, though--as a blonde, she's easy to spot in an elevator. That's where the sleepless Murray first notices her, and it's hard to escape the idea that Charlotte's hair inspires his initial interest. For a guy surrounded by weird foreigners, those fair locks are like the sexual Golden Arches of home.

Arguments about this film tend to boil down to two key questions: What is the movie's attitude toward its characters; and what is the movie's attitude toward Japan?

The neon of Tokyo looks wonderful. Aside from Murray, it's the best thing about Lost in Translation. But apart from the cityscapes and a brief, dropped-in travelogue half-way through, this is a film that hates Japan. Virtually every Japanese person in the film is wacky, creepy, bizarre, or plastic. The worst example is the hooker scene, which even the film's defenders cannot defend. It's just over-the-top silly, with the hooker ending up kicking and wailing on the floor of Murray's hotel room. Those freaky Japs. Who can figure 'em?

Then there's the goofy talk show host, the clueless commercial director, the lap-dance loving party boys, and the phony business types with the fixed smiles. Lost in Translation's admirers point out that those caricatures do exist in Japan. Probably so. But if I make a movie featuring gun nuts, TV evangelists, racist rednecks, and cheerleading bimbos, am I presenting a fair picture of America? (Or am I Michael Moore?)

What if Tokyo were Toronto?

 

Others claim that the film's version of Japan simply represents an alienating environment for two lost Americans. Fair enough. Will it be cool if Coppola's next film features two sophisticated New Yorkers lost in a backwater called Canada, simply meant to represent a bunch of yokels? If "Lost in Translation" is merely using Japan as cinematic shorthand for "strange," it does a tremendous disservice to the country. More than that--it shows its characters to be the kind of boorish louts who ought to stay home.

Which brings up that other question: if Lost in Translation's two main characters dislike Japan, how does the movie feel about that? Is Coppola, as many have suggested, painting a portrait of two shallow people abroad, mooning around the hotel bar, blind to the wonders around them? Or are her sympathies squarely with the homesick Bob and Charlotte?

The movie would exhibit little appeal for the audience if they disliked the central characters. Clearly, Coppola wants us to sympathize with Bob and Charlotte's point of view. Lost in Translation is a two-headed version of Alice in Wonderland, and in Lewis Carroll's fable it wasn't Alice who was nuts. She was a sane traveler in an insane, alternate universe. Bob and Charlotte form their emotional bond as an emotional barrier against the perverse and hostile world they find themselves in. My sympathies here did not lie with the two Yanks.

Every movie has its weak points. The question is, does a film display enough style and intelligence to make you overlook missteps, such as the silly hooker scene? I would have been willing to cut this film more slack if I agreed with the many critics who thought Coppola had crafted a lovely, nuanced look at two lonely characters. But aside from Murray's trademark urbanity the dialogue just isn't there, and it's the writing that exposes Coppola as a second-rater. In her clumsy screenwriting style, the subtext of each conversation is as subtle as Vanilla Coke. Here's Charlotte making a quick call to her friend back home: "I don't know who I married. OK, bye."

Wow! Marital alienation, expressed with a minimum of fuss. Or take Murray, ostensibly discussing carpet samples with his wife: "I'm not talking about carpet samples," says Bill.

"Well, what ARE you talking about?" says the wife.

Hey! They're not communicating. I get it!

Lord of the Rings? Don't get me started.

 

I will say this for "Lost in Translation"--I didn't walk out after 70 minutes, which is more than I can say for "In America." Jim Sheridan's new film was named the best of 2003 by Richard Roeper, and his TV partner Ebert had it in the Top 10, too. What awful dreck. Friends who stayed behind after I left the theatre (friends who loved Lost in Translation, by the way) told me it got worse after I left. Much worse.

Even "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King", while intermittently spectacular, was ultimately a disappointment. The best-reviewed movies of this year turned out to be a very mixed bag.

And right on top of that Hefty bag sits "Lost in Translation", the Over-rated Champ of '03. I can only speculate that critics were so enthralled by the charm of Bill Murray and the earnest, dewy softness of Scarlett Johansson that they transferred those warm feelings to Sofia Coppola. I'll bet her next film is described as "a stunning letdown from her previous masterpiece." Quit now, Sofia, while you're still a genius.


Widely published Steve Burgess writes the Forced to Watch column about television for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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